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Discerning With God

I’ve frequently mentioned Our Lady of Lourdes, the parish in which I direct RCIA and do a lot of adult faith formation. I’ve written several pieces for that parish’s bulletin. This one, on discernment, appeared in last Sunday’s bulletin. Since I thought others might benefit from it, I share it here:

Discerning with God
Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been encouraging you, as part of our stewardship focus, to engage in a process of discernment around how you are being called to share your gifts with our parish community.

I intentionally use the terms “discernment” rather than decisionmaking. Doing so reminds us that exploring what our gifts are and how we are being called to use them is a dialogic process between us and God. Elizabeth Liebert, in her book The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practies for Decisionmaking (a book I highly recommend), defines discernment as “the process of intentionally becoming aware of how God is present, active, and calling us as individuals and communities so that we can respond with greater faithfulness.” Thus, the term discernment implies a prayerful process of determining how God is inviting you to use your gifts. Of determining with God what is your authentic calling.

That means several things. First, since this is about God’s call and not our own individual preferences, we must be open to surprises. Open to the fact that God sometimes calls us out of our comfort zone. Open to the fact that God may be inviting us to use gifts we haven’t even recognized we possess.

Second, discernment is not a one-shot deal (or even an annual deal – something we think about only when our parish asks for a stewardship commitment), but a life-long process. We need to have sensitivity to the fact that God may have different plans for us at different times. That can be difficult because it means that the best one can ever say is I am where I am supposed to be right now, but I need to be open to the fact that God may want me to do something else at a different time. This is important to keep in mind because we often have a tendency to stick to our prior decisions, making it easy to ignore signs that it is time to move on. Change is never easy.

Third, although this is doubtless already clear from what I have said, to say that discernment is a dialogic process with God presumes that we are regularly (daily, I hope) taking time to be with God in prayer. I think that is worth emphasizing because we all have a lot of things occupying our attention and “fitting in” time for prayer requires intentionality. If I want God to help me see the path forward, I need to give God a chance to communicate with me. If you have been a little lax about your prayer lately, this is a good time to re-commit yourself to making time in your daily schedule for God.

I think about my own experience as I share these thoughts about discernment. Eight and a half years ago I was happily settled in New York teaching at St. John’s Law School and on the adjunct ministerial staff of a Jesuit Retreat House. Moving to Minneapolis was not at all on my radar screen, and so when the offer from St. Thomas came, I engaged in extended prayer. Ultimately I was confident that this is where God wanted me to be. Leaving my family, my friends and my retreat house was not easy. Trading New York City for The Twin Cities was not easy. But I was confident in my discernment process and now, in my eighth year here, I have no doubt about God’s wisdom in encouraging this move an I am delighted with where my ministry has taken me.

I engaged in another discernment process last year as I was planning to walk the Camino de Santiago. The result of that process is that after 21 years of law teaching, I have now stopped teaching, so as to devote full time to the spiritual formation and retreat work I do – some at Lourdes, some at the Law School and some in other places here and elsewhere. It means making a lot less money than I made teaching law, but I have prayerfully concluded that that is how God wants me to use my gifts.

That’s some of my story. What about you? Where is God inviting you? And, more importantly, what are you doing to remain open to hearing that call?

Remember that if you are struggling with how God is calling you, Fr. Dan, Deacon Thom or I are available to speak with you.

Knowing When to Say No

It has been a very busy week. Sunday I led a session of Bible Prayer/Study before the 11:00 Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes, and after the 11:00 taught an RCIA class. Monday evening I gave a talk at the third session of the monthly program Christine Luna Munger and I are doing at St. Kate’s designed to help people deepen their experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Yesterday morning I offered a development morning for spiritual directors at Sacred Ground on Learning from Ignatius. Today I will give a talk at Weekly Manna at the law school, after which I will introduce my friend Rabbi Norman Cohen, who will be the speaker at one of our Mid-Day Reflections. Then tomorrow morning I will facilitate a Spiritual Listening Group and I haven’t yet looked at the Friday schedule. (And that is in addition to seeing a number of directees and working on several other projects, etc.)

I love what I do. I am enormously grateful that I am given the opportunity to minister in places like UST Law School, St. Kate’s and Our Lady of Lourdes.

The fact that I love what I do, however, makes it so very easy to do more than is healthy. It is so tempting to want to say yes to every ministry opportunity that arises. Combine my love for what I do with the tremendous need in the world and “no” does not fall easily from the lips.

But I have learned that I do need to set some boundaries. I have come increasingly to recognize that that no is not a bad word. I still don’t say it all that frequently, but the word comes out in situations it would not have done so several years ago. Part of it is the recognition that I need more time to “be” rather than “do.” Part of it is wanting the freedom to spend more time talking with friends and acquaintances in a relaxed way (rather than fitting them into a small open block in my calendar). And part of it is my increased confidence that I am loved by God without doing anything, that I don’t need to constantly “do” to justify that love.

Do you know when to say no? If not, it might be worth spending some time reflecting on why it is hard for you to do so.

This morning was the second of a four-session Fall scripture study/prayer I am offering at Our Lady or Lourdes in Minneapolis. The series, titled from Creation to Annunciation is designed to help us prepare for our Christmas celebration of the coming of Christ. In our first session last week, we focused on Creation and Fall. My talk addressed the Genesis account of creation (and what it reveals about God’s plan), the entry of sin into the world, and God’s response to sin – the decision to incarnate.

This week’s session focused on The Promise of the Old Testament. That is, I spoke about the messages of three of the Old Testament prophets: Isaiah, Micah and Malachi, with an emphasis on Isaiah. Each of the three illustrates God’s promise: Though the people have wandered far from what God envisioned for them, God constantly invites them back. The repeated structure of the prophets is judgment and promise, judgment and hope. This is illustrated so well in the early part of the Book of Isaiah, which opens with the Book of Judgment. Yet, even as God is harshly castigating the people for their sins, God invites (as God does continually) “Come now, let us set things right.”

My talk also focused on our need to be active participants in “preparing the way of the Lord,” and on our call to be prophets.

Following my talk, we had a period of silent reflection, followed by some sharing. (That is not part of the recording.) I ended by encouraging the participants to spend time praying with the prophets this week. (Part of what we are trying to emphasize in this series is the value of praying with scripture and not just reading it as an intellectual exercise.)

You can access a recording of the my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 39:03.)

You can tell we are approaching the end of the liturgical year: the Gospel readings start to get a little dark, as Jesus what it will be like “in the days of the Son of Man. In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus tells his disciples:

On that day, someone who is on the housetop
and whose belongings are in the house
must not go down to get them,
and likewise one in the field
must not return to what was left behind….
[O]n that night there will be two people in one bed;
one will be taken, the other left.
And there will be two women grinding meal together;
one will be taken, the other left.

Not a very comforting vision, is it?

As I’ve shared before, I’m never quite sure of what to do with these end time readings. Clearly the world will end sometime, but it is, of course, impossible for any of us to predict when that will be. In a section in Luke not far removed from today’s Gospel, Jesus is pretty emphatic about that – telling his disciples that many will be say the time has come, but that it will not be so.

We may not have any idea when the world will end, but we do have a choice about how we spend however much time is remaining. It is our choice to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world or to simply shrug and say it doesn’t matter because the world will end one of these days. Only one of those choices seems to me to be open to those who call themselves Christ’s disciples.

Almost immediately upon his election as Pope Francis, accusations and speculation arose about the role Jorge Mario Bergoglio played during the 1976-1983 “Dirty War” in Argentina. For those too young to remember, in 1976 a military junta overthrew the Argentine government and seized control, initiating a period of officially-sanctioned terrorism during which thousands of people “disappeared,” most of whom were tortured and many of whom were killed. Some charged that Bergoglio was complicit in the dirty war; others complained that he did not publicly denounce what was going on.

Those accusations and speculations prompted international reporter and legal journalist Nello Scavo to begin an investigation of his own. The result of his investigation is his book, Bergoglio’s List. Originally published only in Italian, the book has recently been translated into English, and I was sent an copy for review by Saint Benedict’s Press.

The subtitle of the book – How a Young Francis Defied a Dictatorship and Saved Dozens of Lives dispenses with any suspense about the result of Scavo’s investigation. He found “documents and testimony that excluded any complicity with the regime; on the contrary, they clearly demonstrate how [Bergoglio] helped those who were persecuted by the junta.” His actions directly and indirectly saved many. Scavo’s further investigations led him to a number of people who, albeit reluctantly, shared their stories about how “Father Jorge” saved their lives. A number of those stories are told in the book.

The individual stories are powerful and the descriptions of this period in Argentina’s history horrific. But I also appreciated the pictures of the younger version of this Pope revealed by those who spoke to Scavo. Some reveal his sense of humor: Fr. Jorge, several years after protecting three seminarians, came for their ordination and led them in the spiritual exercises. On a terribly hot day, when the three decided to jump into the river to cool off, Bergoglio put on his swim suit, got into the water and gave them the retreat in the stream.

Others reveal his deep commitment to the poor. One person shared a memory of a time

Jorge came into my hovel made of sheet metal and earthen floor. He stopped in for a few days for spiritual retreat. During those moments, you could tell he was not the type of person to just chat about theology cooling off with a fan. He was a man with a mission. He listened to the poor and watched them in their misery and their impulses. He immersed himself in their world and in their suffering. He went down into the depths of their hearts in order to then take them back up with his message of hope.

Doubtless the book will not put to rest the suspicions of some. But given the breadth of sources upon which Scavo’s book is based, it is hard to come away from reading it without an admiration for the courage and stamina shown by Bergoglio during this difficult period.

Creation and Fall

Yesterday was the first of a four-session pre-Advent scripture study/prayer I am offering at Our Lady or Lourdes in Minneapolis. The series, titled from Creation to Annunciation is designed to help us prepare for our Christmas celebration of the coming of Christ.

As I observed at the outset of my talk today, the different Gospels begin the story of Jesus in different places. John and Mark begin with the preaching of John the Baptist. Luke begins with the foretelling of the Baptist’s birth. Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus Christ, a genealogy that he begins with Abraham. But to understand the full story of Jesus Christ, we have to go back even further – to the story of creation.

Thus, today’s focus was on creation and fall. I began by talking about the Genesis account of creation – and what it reveals about God’s plan. I then spoke about how we might think about the entry of sin into the world. From there I moved on to God’s response to sin – the decision to incarnate.

Following a question and answer period, I described the handout for the series (which I will try to post later this week in an update to this post) and made suggestions for the participants prayer during the week. I then led the group in a guided meditation on creation, after which we had some small group sharing. It was a wonderful start to the series.

You can access a recording of the first part of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 25:33.) My apologies for the technical error on my part that prevented my recording the part of the session that continued after the brief question and answer session.

In today’s Gospel reading from St. John, Jesus finds “in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there.”  He angrily drives them from the temple area and it must have been something to behold: Jesus overturning tables, spilling their coins, whacking at things with a whip made of cord.  And he tells reprimands them, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

I’ve shared before that when I imagine the temple as Jesus walked into it, I see note only people buying and selling and money changing, but also  people cheating each other or haggling excessively over prices. People socializing and carrying on other business. People off in corners gambling, eating, drinking, and probably engaging in a lot of other activities that don’t seem very temple-like. What Jesus saw were people who had lost their focus, forgot the purpose for which they were there, a people whose focus ceased to be on God. I think that is what Jesus is reacting to when he laments what they have done to the temple, his father’s house.

But there is more than that going on. When asked for a sign, Jesus says to them “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  Literally, that made no sense; as the people observe, it took 46 years to build that temple.  How could Jesus rebuild it in three days?  John goes on to clarify that Jesus “was speaking about the temple of his Body.”

John states explicitly what is implicit in Jesus’ words:  There is now a new temple, a new place of God’s dwelling, and that temple is Jesus. Jesus’ own body replaces the physical temple as God’s dwelling. Jesus is where we go to worship, Jesus is where we go for solace, Jesus is the source of our salvation. Once the Word becomes flesh, Jesus is the the focal point; it is through Him that we are saved.

This passage invites us to think about how we approach the temple that is Jesus. Do approach Jesus so wrapped up in the world, so completely distracted by our worldly affairs – with what we are buying or selling or getting or not getting, that we cannot hear Him when He speaks to us? Do we approach with a grudge against our brother or our sister, so that our focus is on our own wounds and the injury done to us by another, unable to truly believe in the love our God has for us? Or do we approach with hearts full of love and joy to be in God’s presence?

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